A Tribute to Bonnie Nelson


BonnieActivist Bonnie Nelson was a force of nature. She and I definitely had our differences. So why am I writing to commemorate her? Among many other reasons, because she would have done the same for me. Bonnie Nelson was a person of principle, and once she decided what was right, the rubber hit the road. Bonnie did her best at all times to do the right thing. Too often she and I could not agree upon what the right thing was, and what is deeply unfair here is that I get the last word. It seems fitting to me that my last word to Bonnie should be the deepest truth, which is that I loved her. I always will.

A vitally active member of the psychiatric survivor internet community, Bonnie reached out from rural Alaska to people all over the country (and world) providing educational resources and support. She started MindFreedom Alaska, and arranged opportunities for attorney Jim Gottstein to speak in community forums. Jim offered these words of praise for Bonnie’s dedication to the causes she believed in: “Bonnie Nelson was a classic activist in the liberal/progressive tradition, including the civil rights movement, gender rights and disability rights. She always pushed the edge of the envelope for more rights. She was well known by the highest Alaska officials, and her absence will leave a void.”

Bonnie struggled all her life with the consequences of a grandfather who had been a victim of brain-damaging psychiatric treatment. One of those consequences, she said, was that she and her brothers grew up believing that emotions were dangerous and should be avoided and hidden. They were forbidden to cry. Bonnie’s ultimate and enduring gifts to the world were her efforts to stop that system… and her faithful love for her two formidable sons, Greg and Daryl.

Bonnie Nelson’s life was forever changed when the first of her two sons came into the world strangling on the umbilical chord that had nourished him. Daryl was deprived of oxygen at birth, long enough that the damage was profound; and Bonnie’s purpose was thrust upon her. At the same time, I believe, Daryl was her angel. Together, Bonnie and Daryl accomplished many feats in exposing holes in systems of “care,” making progress towards necessary accommodations for physically and emotionally disabled people.

This past spring, Anchorage participated in the international protest of electroshock with Bonnie at the helm, and I put her on the spot in front of the camera. “Don’t interview me,” she said… but I could not comply. Bonnie was as well-spoken an advocate as could be found, and so I turned the camera on her and she rose to the occasion. It was the last time I was to see her.

The contributions people make should not be forgotten, and Bonnie was definitely not someone who promoted herself. Since I am that kind of person, I urge readers who knew Bonnie and Daryl to write about her. How wonderful it would be if we honored each other as we deserve to be honored for such dedication and sacrifice.

Bonnie and I both come from the generation that watched President Kennedy’s send-off on national television. We all came together as a community to watch a tiny John-John salute at his father’s grave; we all remember the eternal flame at the cemetery, and we felt the loss of a family member who once said to us (in a time of potential reform, the 1960’s), “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” I believe Bonnie Nelson answered that call, just as I believe that all of us here at Mad In America are really here because we deeply love our country, a country whose founding principle was that individual rights are the basis of a just society. This, I truly believe, is why we are mad in America. We have lost that collective vision, and we come together to remember what we have lost, and move forward. On this, Bonnie Nelson and I agreed wholeheartedly.

I confess that it took me hours to physically recognize, and then allow, my feelings of loss. In the aftermath of six years of difficult psychiatric drug withdrawal, I am noticeably blunted in my emotions, stranded in a collateral damage junkyard. There are times when this translates into a strength of sorts – the ability to listen to personal accounts of (completely avoidable) profound iatrogenic harm, day in and day out, and still get some modicum of sleep. Some people who read MIA write to me asking me where I get my strength, and every time this happens, one my first thoughts is of Bonnie.

Bonnie Nelson was a pillar of strength. I attribute any strength I may have to my children, that same source from whose well Bonnie drank so deeply. Our children deserve better. They deserve every ounce of strength we can muster in these dangerous times.

I hope that people will write, in the comments below, some of their memories of Bonnie’s generosity, her considerable intelligence, and passion; because I know that many of you have them. Bonnie Nelson touched many lives in her efforts to be the change we dream. I would appreciate this as a tribute to Bonnie and a gift to her sons, Daryl and Greg, in this time of grief.


Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.


Mad in America has made some changes to the commenting process. You no longer need to login or create an account on our site to comment. The only information needed is your name, email and comment text. Comments made with an account prior to this change will remain visible on the site.


  1. So very sad to hear about Bonnie’s passing, Nancy. I don’t know how many times I’ve been on late night telephone calls with her, but she will definitely be missed. We talked about the possibility of arranging road trips to educate representatives in different states. I had no idea, as of the last time we talked, that anything was ailing her, but she must have been ill then. She came from Florida, and we had explored the possibilities of her returning for a visit, and me going to Alaska to help raise consciousness there. I guess now it’s too late for that. She was good mother, and she cared the world about her sons. I will miss her energy and her devotion much. Her’s is another irreplaceable loss, and at time when our movement is struggling from other such losses. She was an example of the sort we need more of. Thank you for this blog post. She was an example to be followed, and she truly deserves to be commemorated.

    Report comment

  2. Thank you Nancy for sharing a beautiful public tribute to an amazing woman.

    Bonnie had a steadfast commitment to the well-being of others and certainly put meaning to the words of Margaret Mead.

    “Never underestimate the power of a small group of committed people to change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead.

    I appreciate all of those who have dedicated their time, effort and energy into creating and maintaining this very valuable site where such a tribute can exist.


    May you rest in peace, love and light,

    Maria M.

    Report comment

  3. Thank You Nancy for this tribute to Bonnie Nelson . I spoke to her on the phone less then a dozen times and on phone conferences with others along with one of her sons Daryl sometimes as long as 2 hours . After having joined Mind Freedom, David Oaks recommended I should call Bonnie. When I finally did I quickly realized I was talking to real deal experienced activists and she and Daryl were jump starting me into activism for human rights especially against psychiatric oppression from which I had so long been a victim. We talked of cross country RV travel stopping and talking to people along the way . She wanted to travel by RV to visit her friend David Oaks in Eugene hoping he was on a road to recovery. As you say she was a force of nature . She inspired me and now I truly realize the best stance in the face of oppression is activism . Even if it starts slow with only a a small number of people like drops of water growing into a thunderstorm wearing away the oppression and lifting the hearts of the oppressed .We will miss Bonnie , may she have peace and bliss in the world of eternal life.

    Report comment

  4. Fred, Thank you for such a beautiful tribute. I remember how much Bonnie wanted to something with an RV! She had so many, many great ideas. I don’t think many people realised how sick she was. Even back when I first met her in 2009, she had crippling arthritis. It’s so gratifying to hear you say that she changed your perspective on activism. I’m going to quote you on activism, no one could have said it better. Again, thank you. This is exactly what I was hoping might happen……and it is really quite amazing that I’m sitting here writing to people I actually know quite well in important respects, although I don’t know you outside this forum, I do know Judy, and Maria, even Frank from several other organisations and this feels like community. This is good.

    Report comment

  5. Well written Nancy.
    I am Bonnie’s older brother Larry. Tom and Robert have now gone, where ever Bonnie went. There are now only two other brothers and my self still left living now in The state of Washington and two grown sons still living in Alaska.
    Bonnie had eight men to grow up and live with, no sisters only mom. She had to be tough.

    Report comment